JOHN CORIGLIANO: Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano – Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, pianos – Cedille CDR 90000 123 [Distr. by Naxos] ***½:
Leave it to John Corigliano. This composer always comes up with striking concepts. Most of them are brassy and quirky, not all are 100% successful. He rewrote the music for seven of Bob Dylan’s early songs. In five of them, the music is undeniably more inventive and complex than Dylan’s, yet I can’t imagine them catching on. He wrote “Three Hallucinations for Orchestra,” based on music written for Ken Russell’s film Altered States. I particularly remember the second movement, Hymn, which develops and extends the hallowed “Rock of Ages” tune, warping it enough to raise the ghost of Charles Ives.
Now there’s this collection of piano music. Expertly played by the perky Ursula Oppens and accompanied by a patient Jerome Lowenthal, this is a collection to listen to with one wry eye open. Oppens’ modernist sensibilities urge her onward and sideward in each of these pieces. The opening title piece is a set of three improvisations that reminds me of Bartok’s “Allegro Barbaro” (1911), with its lemony dissonances and percussive thrust. The “Fantasia on an Ostinato” is an ultra-clever piece based on the famous ostinato from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, movement II. The opening statement prolongs the ostinato, stretching it out like salt water taffy. He varies the dynamics and tempo considerably, so you’re never sure where he’s going with it. He even jumps freely from key to key, inserting impertinent trills whenever he feels like it. This fantasia is worth at least several listens to savor the man’s chutzpah. I like the way the piece trails off, Beethoven in the left hand and Corigliano’s ornamentation on the right, art deco-style – like a forties diner with one neon letter out.
Most notable, and the one I play for guests, is “Chiaroscuro for Two Pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.” It kind of creeps up on them, with ear-strains of dis-tunefulness. Even the chords sound a bit off, but maybe I’m imagining two pianists producing one sour chord together. The initial effect is disconcerting and a bit whimsical, like seeing a clown walking a clown-dressed dog down a fashionable city street. (You’re not surprised when the children are not amused.) Listen closely to the middle adagio movement and inhale the whole effect. In this movement Corligliano makes no attempts at melody and does not embark on strange rhythmic pronouncements. Of course in the third movement, he does. The city clown hangs around a bit too long, yet he’s made an unforgettable – if not particularly profound – impression. Which is kind of the whole point.
1. Winging It, improvisations for piano: 1. 12/28/07
2. Winging It, improvisations for piano: 2. 1/3/08
3. Winging It, improvisations for piano: 3. 6/7/08
4. Chiarascuro, for 2 pianos: 1. Light
5. Chiarascuro, for 2 pianos: 2. Shadows
6. Chiarascuro, for 2 pianos: 3. Strobe
7. Fantasia on an Ostinato, for piano
8. Kaleidoscope, for 2 pianos
9. Etude Fantasy, for piano: Etude No. 1: For the Left Hand Alone
10. Etude Fantasy, for piano: Etude No. 2: Legato
11. Etude Fantasy, for piano: Etude No. 3: Fifths to Thirds
12. Etude Fantasy, for piano: Etude No. 4: Ornaments
13. Etude Fantasy, for piano: Etude No. 5: Melody
— Peter Bates